LA Phil Unveils Vibrant Andrew Norman Creation

A media installation,`WDCH Dreams,’ fills the walls of Disney Hall after the opening concert of the LA Phil’s centennial season. (Photo: Richard S. Ginell)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — Some orchestras that make it to their centennials would open their 100th season with a tried-and-true blockbuster like Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Second. Others might hire Yo-Yo Ma or Renée Fleming to import some glamour to the occasion. But you wouldn’t expect the Los Angeles Philharmonic to do something that conventional, would you? Of course not.

Andrew Norman’s `Sustain’ produced richly alluring textures.

Going its own way as usual, the LA Phil kept its centennial season opener Oct. 4 all in the family as it were. It commissioned from Andrew Norman — who directs the orchestra’s Composer Fellowship Program and teaches at nearby USC — a major work, not a typically brief curtain-raiser, and put it in prime time after intermission. Resisting the temptation to use celebrity soloists, the orchestra asked three of its principal players to do the honors in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. And the Phil reprised a composition from its former music director and current conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen that bears the fortuitous title of LA Variations, as led by current music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel.

Tellingly, though, the Phil could not draw a full house at Walt Disney Concert Hall with this program on this occasion. Even concerts with Dudamel on the podium are no longer a guaranteed sellout. (The next morning’s program, though, was sold out on the website while tickets for the weekend concerts remained available.)

Norman’s new piece — estimated at a whopping 45 minutes in the program but actually 36 minutes in the performance — is called Sustain, and it came with an all-embracing agenda. Norman writes that he was trying to imagine what audiences at Disney Hall 100 years from now would be feeling, hearing, and pondering, particularly their conception of time, and how it would affect concert life. Then he thought that the piece was really about planet Earth, and that we are not doing enough to save it from ourselves. “How we treat the planet, and how the planet treats us,” as he put it in the pre-concert talk.

That is all well and good, but it didn’t seem to have much to do with what I was hearing, which is not a knock, because Sustain is a cogent, single symphonic movement full of richly alluring textures for a huge orchestra. It can be divided into two nearly equal sections, both of which begin with a ripple from two pianos, then silence, then attractive cascading strings eventually coalescing into rapidly repeated notes building to a fever pitch. You could almost see its structure as a truncated sonata form with a development but no recapitulation, but maybe not.

Salonen, composer of `LA Variations’ (Louisa Dedalus)

One of the pianos was deliberately detuned into quarter-tones so, when played together, the sound of the two pianos was mystically disorienting. Three-quarters of the way into the piece, Norman reverted to the caroming video-game-influenced manner that originally made his name in the symphonic world, followed by a freeform section where the textures became slippery and sliding. No one can predict whether this piece is going to be around 100 years from now, but I can say that it certainly — with pun intended — “sustained” interest throughout its world premiere performance, which was recorded for possible release.

LA Variations (1997) was the major turning point for Salonen. Having been exposed to the Southern California lifestyle after taking the reins of the LA Phil in 1992, he chucked his strict, abstract, European avant-garde style and with this piece began to exploit the endless colors and virtuosity of his new orchestra in a more all-embracing manner. Though LA Variations begins forbiddingly like Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony (Salonen acknowledges the influence of his fellow Finn), gradually the shadows fade and it becomes a joyful, crowded, splashy, driving, sardonic, even frightening piece — a portrait of L.A. that still rings true. Dudamel drove the piece with a vitality aimed right into the laps of his listeners, with Disney Hall revealing the music’s inner workings more clearly and powerfully than the orchestra’s old home where the world premiere took place, the Chandler Pavilion, ever could.

In the Beethoven Triple Concerto, the Phil got exactly what might have been expected from concertmaster Martin Chalifour, principal keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin, and principal cellist Robert deMaine — an intimate performance. Nothing flashy, three colleagues conversing collegially with each other, with DeMaine sounding recessed within the texture, Chalifour sweet yet emphatic, Martin genteel. Dudamel took a forthright approach, eventually making the Rondo finale dance the night away.

Outside, an installation by Refik Anadol, WDCH Dreams, was being shown every 15 minutes, a phantasmagorical light show beamed on the stainless steel walls of Disney Hall, fulfilling a long-held desire by the building’s architect, Frank Gehry. Strains of Mahler’s First Symphony, Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, and, from a 1928 Hollywood Bowl recording, Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance” were mashed into an electronic soundtrack as abstract images and glimpses of scenes from the Phil’s history flashed on the walls.

Ghostly images of past LA Phil performances on Disney Hall walls. (Richard S. Ginell)

This concert also was the beginning of LA Fest, a season-opening series in which Dudamel’s urge to embrace other musical idioms will continue with a vengeance. Norman serves as curator for the first Green Umbrella concert of the season as part of LA Fest (Oct. 9), which features five more world premieres from the pens and/or composing software of Ethan Braun, Natacha Diels, Daniel Allas, Tina Tallon, and Carolyn Chen (the last of whose piece Dudamel will conduct). On Oct. 11, Dudamel and the LA Phil will back singer/songwriter Andrew Bird in his song suite Time Is A Crooked Bow, with Gabriel Kahane on guitar, along with other selections by Bird and Steven Stucky’s Symphony.

Pop star Moby is next to be backed by Dudamel and company Oct. 12 in his God Moving Over the Face of the Waters and various other songs, and Dudamel will lead two LA Phil commissions, Gabriela Ortiz’s Téenek (first heard last year at the CDMX fest) and Julia Adolphe’s Underneath the Sheen. Jazz’s Herbie Hancock combines forces with Gustavo and the Phil (Oct. 13), with John Adams’ City Noir as a prelude, and LA Fest closes (Oct. 14) with Cuco and La Santa Cecilia. On all of these concert dates, yet another installation, Oscillations: One Hundred Years and Forever, with music by Ellen Reid, will play before the concerts and during intermissions.

And this is just the beginning of a season loaded with events beyond the imagination and perhaps budget of any other ensemble in the land.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.